Minions on the Table

In my last miniony article, I wrote about tinkering with minions mechanically to come to the flavor you really want from them. Now it’s time for your minions to meet the consumers, your players. A lot off cooks say that a big part of the experience with food is presentation. It’s the same with encounters in general and minions in specific. The tastiest minions might fail if you give them poor table presence.

A Nice Spread

Monsters can lose a battle before it begins if they have bad tactical positions. This is even truer with minions. Even if we assume, narratively, that your minions have no way to know they’re little competition for the characters, the creatures have a reason to seize tactical advantages. Beasts do so by instinct and natural ability, and smarter creatures do so through cunning, inclination, and planning.

Consider where the minions might want to be on the battlefield, just like you would for a monster of similar role. Assuming the monster has the ability to choose its lair or the fight’s locale, you can even build the encounter area to accommodate such a minion group’s terrain needs. Any artillery monster, as an example, seeks favorable terrain that allows it to shoot without direct melee confrontation. They favor high or protected places, such as a ledge or a window, that are hard to get to.

Speaking of hard to get to, movement modes can obviate the need for specific terrain while allowing a minion longevity and some narrative coolness. A movement mode—burrow, climb, fly, or swim—can allow minions to have the run of the combat zone. Skirmisher or lurker minions, or those designed for a specific narrative effect, might even be able to disengage with little risk, and then return to battle when they choose to. Such movement modes also make it easy to fill an encounter area that seemed empty when the characters entered. (Ambush!) The arrival of new monsters during the ongoing fight is also easily explained. In the previous articles I talked about myconid gas spores and kruthiks, both of which can use specialized movement modes to appear in combat from unusual angles.

When designing a space for your minions, take cues from cinematic video games, especially high-action games such as Borderlands. In Borderlands, some creatures (skags) emerge from burrows to join the fight, while others (spiderants) emerge from the soil in ambush. (It’s easy to see kruthiks as spiderants.) Still others (rakk) dive in for a flyby attack, then retreat. You often encounter an interesting array of creatures, weak to strong, that have varying powers despite physical similarities.

Consider that what’s good for the characters is also good for the monsters. Terrain powers add to a combat encounter interesting effects that the characters can exploit. A minion or group of minions might become particularly effective if they try to make use of the terrain powers, too. It’s all fair if everyone has an equal chance to use the terrain. When the kobold miners push the fiery brazier over on the characters, the players might just start to value terrain powers more. Just be sure to adjust the difficulty if it seems likely a terrain power might really favor the monsters.

Ingredients List

Food labels normally tell you what you’re eating so you can make informed dietary decisions. Gamist transparency is the same. It’s telling the players what the characters are facing so smart choices can be made. It’s called gamist because it’s more about the mechanical side of the game than the narrative side. It’s called transparency because the players are allowed to see through the game’s narrative reality, or what the characters might know, into the mechanical reality.

Transparency is a controversial subject. Some DMs prefer to tell the players everything, even if doing so requires giving out metagame knowledge—information the characters can’t really know. Such a DM allows players to act on this metagame knowledge. The DM justifiably assumes the characters are way more competent and informed than the players, so giving the players a little gamist leeway is harmless. Other DMs are stricter. They provide only information the characters have a way of really knowing, allowing knowledge and perceptual skill checks to expand the available data. As with other aspects of the game, the “right” way is what works best for you and your players.

Let’s face the facts. Minion, like any other role, is a game term the characters don’t know in a narrative or in-game sense. The characters can, however, sense whether an opponent looks less competent, poorly armed, or less prepared for battle. A fighter should easily notice that the fighting technique of an opponent is amateurish. An arcanist might note that the arcane power in a magical creature is weak, just like a cleric could be able to sense that an undead minion’s ties to the Shadowfell are tenuous. A ranger surely knows whether an individual beast is too feeble to be much of threat to the characters.

I favor some generosity in the realm of transparency. Sometimes I assume the battle-hardened characters can just tell when a creature is a minion. Other times, I use passive knowledge to determine what the players know. Every once in a while, I require an actual check or wait for the players to ask for such a check. (This is most true when the minions are considerably higher in level than the characters.) I have called for a check when a player is about to use an encounter or daily power on a minion. My inconsistency on this subject is due to conflicting desires, unique situations, and differing narrative needs in a given encounter. I prefer for the players to be able to use their resources as wisely as possible, but I also want to minimize the use of metagame knowledge. It can be an immersion killer. A decent level of immersion is required for me to have fun as a DM.

Robert Howard—a friend, player in my game, fine DM, and master of Pen & Paper Games—has a different perspective. He sees at least some of his minions as fully competent monsters that the characters can’t tell from the mechanically superior counterparts. The characters just happen, in cinematic fashion, to take out some of the fully competent monsters with one shot. Robert is using such minions to create an illusion of the characters’ badassery. To a character in such an encounter, he or she just took out a dangerous opponent in a single, gruesome blow. My difficulty with this tack is that the players see through it too easily; the mechanical reality is usually apparent.

Matters of Personal Taste

The point of all this is that minions, along with the other monsters, can be used in a variety of ways. You can create countless game experiences and stories by carefully employing minions, by manipulating their mechanics, and by engineering the encounter—XP budget to terrain—to accommodate them. You can even control transparency in varied ways, like Robert and I do. The process is more art than science, so experiment and have fun. You are the (evil?) mastermind and these minions are all yours.

Illustrations by Jared von Hindman of Head Injury Theater.
Dragon illustration appears in
Sly Flourish’s Dungeon Master Tips.

Minions of Differing Flavors

Last time, I talked about how minions spice up encounters and what they’re meant to do in the D&D game. But, just like the epicure needs new and exciting experiences, numerous DMs among us need new ways to mix it up with minions. This is especially true if you feel your minions disappear too quickly to be interesting or seem to be no added challenge. I’m going to attempt to, as an infamous chef might say, help you to kick it up a notch . . . sometimes.

I already suggested that you take some care in using minions to create a specific flavor when you’re brewing up encounters. You can take it a step further by creating or altering minions. Several methods can be used to change minion effectiveness and flavor. Used cleverly and in the right amount, these schemes can make minions a tastier addition to some encounters.

Spice to Taste

Let me reemphasize the use of minions as a form of encounter pacing and narrative flow. When you design an encounter, you can make up storyline reasons why the minions show up in intervals—or show up, then disappear. then show up again. When you design the pacing this way, only a portion of the minions is on the battlefield at one time. The characters can kill only what’s there at the time. The arrival of new combatants changes the course of the encounter.

As an aside, I never roll initiative for new minions. They appear and go on the same initiative count as the initial minions in the encounter did. Doing this keeps the game rolling. (I actually rarely roll initiative for any monster, but that’s a topic for another day.)

In my Gen Con Dark Sun game, as an example, the characters were the fuel for an evil ritual in which a dray (dragonborn) sorcerer was turning himself into a kaisharga (lich). They were far from alone in this predicament, but they were the only individuals with the fortitude and influence of other forces to awaken during the ritual. Each round, the ritual dealt damage to the characters, and some of the other unfortunates being used for arcane fodder died. A defiled spirit, like a weak wraith, rose from the remains of each NPC who perished. These minions, appearing two or three per round, harried the characters as they tried to unravel the ritual. In fact, the minions caused some nail biting, since the defiled spirits were in a position to take out a character or two who had to choose between attacking the minions and continuing to oppose the ongoing ritual.

Long Live the Flavor

If minion survival is a goal, it’s fair to carefully fiddle with what keeps a minion alive and in the battle. At the heroic tier, you might need to be cautious with such tinkering. At higher levels, minor survivability changes to minions rarely matter much. Just make sure the narrative quality of a minion fits with its longevity.

What happens if you change “HP 1; a missed attack never damages a minion” to “HP 1; this minion takes damages only when hit by an attack”? You’ve just eliminated automatic damage, such as from rain of steel, and attacks that require no attack rolls, such as the new magic missile, from possible damage sources for this minion. Hazardous terrain effects that require no attack roll can’t take this minion out, either. That’s good for some minions, as long as you mean to remove the effects of some powers, such as cleave, when making such a change.

Again, use these techniques with care, avoiding thwarting character abilities just because you can. Single encounters with unusual creatures are fine. Repeatedly being faced with monsters who are immune to aspects of your powers is frustrating.

That’s why traditional immunities aren’t great options for normal monster design. They can thwart a character too much, and they can eliminate certain character themes as viable builds. However, immunity to a damage type or two can work well for minions. Resistance does little for minions, since only 1 damage has to make it through. A fire minion with fire immunity makes perfect sense, though. Fire never deals enough damage to kill such a creature, but it still takes only one solid hit with another damage type to kill it.

You can make it so that one solid hit isn’t enough to kill some minions. Two-hit minions come in various forms. Insubstantial, like most resistances, does little for a minion. However, it’s easy to imagine an insubstantial minion being allowed a saving throw against taking damage from an attack once per encounter. In fact, the fell taint drone from Dragon 367 does just that. I’ve also made minions I wanted to appear tough or heavily armored, such as dwarf militia warriors, that receive a saving throw against the first hit. The narrative tells the players and characters why the minion is hard to kill.

No hard-to-kill minion discussion is complete without mentioning zombies. To me, zombie minions are almost required to give any horde of shambling corpses the right feel. Further, as my players know, I like for zombies to get up again after they seem dead. Some of my regular-monster zombies rise again as low-hit-point monsters, and others reanimate as minions. Zombie minions can also be two-hit wonders, because they might stand back up on their next turn if not dealt with appropriately. It works even better if you make the ability to rise again unpredictable. You can probably think of reasons for non-undead minions to behave similarly—elementals, demons, primal spirits and so on.

Savor the Subtle

Minions are meant to deal damage and worry the characters enough to change party tactics. Consider, though, the countless ways a minion might deal its damage. It need not have an attack to do its dirty work.

Like a warlord granting the barbarian an extra attack, a minion can simply stand around and benefit the stronger creatures in the fight. I’m not talking about resorting to Aid Another, although that can be cool in an all-out kobold free-for-all. What I mean is a minion that provides openings, hinders enemies, and/or damages characters just because it’s there.

Imagine a minion that has an aura to make enemies vulnerable to other damage, less effective at defense, or something else insidious. It might deal automatic damage—what’s good for the players is good for the DM—impose a condition, or alter terrain around it. The players will want those minions gone, believe me. All the better if you decide to add new ones over the course of the encounter.

The fire sinks from Seekers of the Ashen Crown are this type of minion. They don’t attack. Instead, a fire sink moseys up to you and eliminates your resistances to fire. Then it burns you if you end your turn next to it. Hello Ms. Tiefling, it’s time to get out of the kitchen or taste the heat. New experiences are fun, no?

Consider the Aftertaste

Speaking of tasting the bitterly unexpected, I’m no fan of gotcha powers on monsters. You know the ones. When the boneshard skeleton blows up all over the whole party, that’s a gotcha power. Such powers are the worst when they have large areas, like the boneshard skeleton’s boneshard burst. A close burst 1 allows the characters to pull out forced movement powers to move the foe away before the gotcha power goes off. Close burst 3, though? Not interesting, so no thanks.

For minions, however, I don’t mind gotcha powers so much. If a minion does something funky and fun when it dies, and it makes sense for the creature’s nature, that’s fine with me. Even so, minions don’t need to be too gotcha to be effective. I still favor small areas and powers that require attack rolls, or powers that affect the minion’s allies for a time.

A myconid gas spore (from Underdark) is much more fun if its spore burst is small enough that pushing the creature 1 square away saves you and your buddy from the damage. Then it becomes a tactical puzzle rather than a situation that no amount of careful play can help. Making the players interested and wiling to adapt is the point. That’s why I changed the spore burst to close burst 1 for my game. The players started pushing the spores around rather than shrugging and taking the original burst-3 spore burst.

In this vein, I also like powers such as Monster Manual 2‘s rupture demon’s demonic infestation, at least in spirit. A minion that dies, and then it gives its buddy a few hit points and more melee effectiveness? Nice! More, please. What I dislike about the power is its duration. I’d rather see a bigger damage boost, like the rupture demon’s normal damage, for 1 round. The cumulative, whole-encounter effect is too much.

What I’m saying with all this is: Rather than increasing a minion’s survivability, consider giving it some aftereffect, like those above, when it dies. Once again, make sure you’re creating a fun experience rather than a frustrating one. Watch the area on exploding minions and the duration of lingering effects. What’s amusing or tactically exciting for a round might become tedious in the long run. Play it out in your head or even with a grid and minis to see if your imagined effect is really what you’ll see in play.

A Third Course

I’ve reached the limit for this article’s digestibility, methinks. A few elements remain on environment and narrative roles (illusions) for minions. It looks like I’ll have to give all that to you next time.

For now, share some of your minion ideas in the comments. Let’s see what we can stir up.

Illustrations by Jared von Hindman of Head Injury Theater.